Shining Light on Relationship Cutoff
Cutting off exes not only hurts our former partners but limits our own growth as well.
Most of us don’t blink when a friend says they’ve cut off an ex. But if you’ve ever been cut off by someone you care deeply for, then you know how distinctly painful an experience it can be. While it may be socially acceptable to cut off communication with our exes, we’re not always cognizant of the impacts on ourselves and our former partners. When we cut off, we may do so from anger but often we may be avoiding feelings of discomfort. Furthermore, if the person being cut off has trauma in their background, the psychological impacts can be devastating.
I’m not talking about distancing ourselves from those we casually date or asking for space after a breakup or simply choosing not to be friends with our exes. I’m talking about breaking off all contact with the most intimate person in our lives without civility — refusing to answer the phone, reply to emails, or acknowledge any aspect of their communication or needs — often without explanation.
Few of my friends know I’ve been nursing a broken heart, for nearly two and a half years. It’s not a typical broken heart but one that combines the end of a romance with the bewilderment and sadness of being cut off by a dear and trusted partner without explanation. It’s also one that echoes painful experiences from my childhood.
I met Emma (not her real name) while assisting in her new media class. Initially, we were acquaintances. She would house sit for me and care for my cats when I’d travel. We would occasionally interact on Facebook, often about gardening or winter sports. And, she joined me once for an amazing National Geographic photography lecture. But we wouldn’t begin dating until a year and half after we met. On our first real date, we made soup together with ingredients from my garden. The intensity of our chemistry caught us both by surprise.
Because I was much older than Emma, we knew it was likely that we would one day have to end things. She would often tell me how important it was that we stay friends regardless and “preserve our conversations.” She had a way with words that made me lower my guard and believe in her completely. After I left to travel abroad for a few weeks, she wrote:
“It has been really illuminating to be with someone who is so open, communicative and caring. I want to thank you for that. When I’m with you I feel a similar sentiment to traveling, it’s new and exciting and a little ungrounding while still feeling tangible, relaxing and enlightening. I do really appreciate our friendship, and like you said that is more important to me than anything else… more importantly I just don’t want to let something that has been so good become anything other than that.”
Our relationship lasted four months. Following our breakup, she continued to say she wanted to be friends. At the last minute, she canceled our first night out as friends and tearfully said she needed a week of space. I left the ball in her court and didn’t hear back from her. She completely withdrew. It was a very painful time for me, and she later acknowledged that it was for her as well.
After nearly a year of silence, I reached out to her and we began a series of conversations toward repairing our friendship. She said she had recently begun dating someone new and I think it was difficult for her to talk to me about our relationship. Her response was to withdraw again. There were misunderstandings and miscommunication.
She stopped responding to my email and when I called to inquire she blocked my number and emailed me to stop contacting her. Over a space of nine months, I wrote her two kind emails in the spirit of healing. Finally, she replied, “I do not want to see or hear from you ever again” and threatened to file an anti-harassment order against me. The open, thoughtful, communicative Emma I knew had vanished.
Cutting off contact with exes seems to be a common practice. A friend of mine related being told by another friend to break up with her boyfriend via “JSC”; just stop communicating. “Love is a battlefield,” goes the saying.
When personal safety is involved, cutoff is warranted. But most times this isn’t the case. When it’s not, this kind of behavior dehumanizes the other and sends the message “your needs don’t matter, you don’t matter.” University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo told Psychology Today, “‘The pain of losing a meaningful relationship can be especially searing in the absence of direct social contact.’ With no definitive closure, we’re left wondering what the heck happened, which can lead to the kind of endless rumination that often leads to depression.”
Emma once told me, “You’re the first one to want me for me,” but her abrupt about-face might make you think I ran off with her best friend or boiled her rabbit … I did neither. In fact, to this day, I have only guesses to make sense of her hostility to me.
Because Emma’s withdrawal and eventual cutoff surprised me so much,I had a lot of intense emotions and questions about what she’d experienced and the choices she’d made. Rather than face my need for explanation and desire for resolution, she chose to withdraw.
Our society supports you when a loved one dies, but when someone dumps you and cuts off communication, you’re supposed to just get over it. Friends are often uncomfortable talking with you about these kinds of feelings. They want you to let go, move on, and definitely stop talking about it.
In The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, Susan Anderson writes, “When a loved one dies, the loss is absolutely final…[but] abandonment survivors may remain in denial and postpone closure, sometimes indefinitely.” We’re not comfortable witnessing the process of grief and acceptance when it stems from the loss of romantic attachment, especially when it’s extended.
When there are emotional loose ends — unanswered questions, mistrust, betrayal, disbelief, bewilderment (as it was for me with Emma) — it can be very difficult to heal. Our culture is very hostile to people in this situation. We often judge those who don’t move on right away. Being the one struggling without answers is one of the most difficult human experiences.
Cutoff and Trauma
People with abuse and trauma in their backgrounds are especially vulnerable. The breaking of attachments can trigger anxiety, depression and evoke unhealed psychic wounds. Says Anderson:
“Emotional experience is more painful when it echoes an episode from the past; that’s especially true when it comes to rejection and loss. The relationship that ended today may be the fulfillment of your worst nightmares from childhood. Grieving over that lost love opens a primal wound.”
Cutoff for someone with attachment wounds can be especially painful. I was raised by an abusive, likely bipolar mother. She physically abused me from age seven to fourteen. After she’d hit me, I would often sit alone in my room in complete disbelief that this was continuing to happen to me while adults who knew, such as my father and uncle, chose not to intervene.
My mom regularly oscillated between loving and abusive behavior toward me but it took me nearly a year to realize exactly how Emma’s reversal had brought up my feelings of past trauma. After all she’d said about remaining friends, Emma’s withdrawal so shocked me that it reactivated my earlier experience of disbelief and suffering in isolation, essentially triggering episodes of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Breakups are often hard for me, but hardest when there is cutoff. For me, Emma’s flip from care and openness to withdrawal and, ultimately, hostile rejection mirrored my mom’s behavior and re-opened deep wounds from my past.
Following her withdrawal, I cried nearly every day and struggled with sleep for months. People often see me as a successful technologist, an ex-Microsoft millionaire, but I can attest to the capacity for trauma to upend your emotional stability and make life a living hell.
Often, the partner doing the cutoff may also have experienced trauma. Cutting off may be a way to avoid pain — or it may be a way to exercise power to feel in control. Anderson says that for serial abandoners, “Creating devastation is their way of demonstrating power.”
Cutoff culture is violent in its own ways. The person cutting ties gets what they want, but the person getting cut off is left in a situation where what they need or want doesn’t matter.
Emma’s last note included the phrase, “Apparently, what I want seems irrelevant to you.” She didn’t realize the irony that what I wanted had long been irrelevant to her. Being on the receiving end of a cutoff, surrounded by friends and culture that just expect you to get over it, can leave you feeling utterly powerless.
Unfortunately, modern technology aids in cutoff. It’s easy to screen calls or block each other on Facebook. Psychology Today’s Elizabeth Svoboda writes, “Remote shortcuts like electronic endings look deceptively appealing—although, at the very least, they chip away at the self-respect of the dumpers and deprive dumpees of a needed shot at closure.” She says it’s “contributing to large increases in stalking behavior…More than 3 million people report being stalking victims each year, the ultimate measure of collective cluelessness about ending love affairs well.”
I believe that most domestic violence is the result of men with trauma histories reacting to powerlessness in response to experiences with their ex, friends, or family. Certainly men are responsible for finding nonviolent ways to respond to feeling powerless, but culturally we need to understand the dynamics driving these kinds of situations if we’re to reduce them.
Our culture needs to have more discussions about power and powerlessness in relationships.
Cutoff Is a Flight Response
Trauma specialist Hala Khouri says, “If it’s hysterical, it’s often historical.” I view Emma’s threat of a court order in response to my letter in this light. Those with trauma in their background often can’t discern between the person triggering them and the original source of trauma. When difficult emotions arise, they may feel real feelings of threat and anxiety. Their brain may shift toward fight-or-flight mode. Cutoff can be a flight response that helps keep difficult emotions at bay.
How we treat others is a mirror of how we behave in the world and how we treat ourselves. When we cut others off, we’re missing a chance to grow. I believe Emma’s cutoff of me helped her avoid facing unresolved difficulties from her own past. There were hints of trauma in her personal history and her occasionally limited capacity for difficult emotions during our relationship.
Sometimes people cut off others to avoid feelings of guilt for hurting them. During our final conversations, Emma told me she would feel guilty and shut down when I shared my feelings. The sad irony is that withdrawal actually compounds the hurt.
I’ve also had partners cut me off after they’ve lied or cheated and don’t want to deal with the impacts of their misbehavior. In this case, cutoff compounds feelings of betrayal.
Author Pema Chodron (who became Buddhist after her husband left her) says:
“The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes.”
The person doing the cutoff may benefit from taking some deep breaths and asking themselves, “What am I trying to avoid here?”
It’s not easy for me, but deep down I believe that Emma’s own past traumas were evoked by our relationship and that this is what’s limited her capacity to show up with her typical maturity.
If you’ve cut someone off, the ideal response is to ask what the other person needs to feel at peace and to try to offer compromise. Yoga teacher Sarah Powers says, “A lot of wounds in this world could be healed if we would say to the other, ‘I’m sorry I hurt you, what do you need now?’” Sometimes we cut off because we lack capacity. One can also say: “I can’t do this right now, but maybe can touch base later. What do you need in the meantime?” This is a place where technology can be helpful. Email can be used to communicate at a distance that feels safe.
Sometimes we cut off because we’re trying to get the person to do something we feel too vulnerable to ask them to do; for instance, we actually want them to apologize, but we’re afraid to ask. It can be difficult to experience the vulnerability of asking for anything from an ex; cutoff is easier than the possibility of rejection.
I believe that men are especially vulnerable to cutoff culture because of cultural expectations around masculinity. Women want us to be passionate, masculine lovers, yet we’re expected to turn off our emotions and let go the moment we’re dumped. If we persist in asking for communication from a woman who has cut us off, we may be considered a perpetrator, as exemplified by Emma’s threatening me with a court order.
Culturally, men aren’t supposed to be vulnerable and to be open with our feelings. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown writes, “Basically, men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak.” She continues:
“Here’s the painful pattern that emerged from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it. In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust. And men are very smart. They know the risks, and they see the look in our eyes when we’re thinking, C’mon! Pull it together. Man up.”
Furthermore, and this will also be controversial, this particular realm of sexuality and breakups is one in which women wield more power; it’s easier in our culture for women to find emotional and physical intimacy when a relationship ends than it is for men.
I remember Emma described during our breakup that her housemate would cuddle with her as she cried; with no such support and few single friends, I was left to watch TV with my cats. It’s rare for men to have the rich emotional networks of support that women do.
The rise of social isolation for men in our culture has a real cost. In “All the Lonely People,” New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat writes, “The suicide rate for Americans 35 to 54 increased nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010 [but] for men in their 50s, it rose nearly 50 percent.” Says Douthat, according to “sociologist Brad Wilcox… there’s a strong link between suicide and weakened social ties: people — and especially men — become more likely to kill themselves ‘when they get disconnected from society’s core institutions (e.g., marriage, religion) or when their economic prospects take a dive (e.g., unemployment).’”
In my experience, female support networks offer richer, warmer emotional support than is traditionally available in male friendships.
Healing After Cutoff
When someone we deeply respect abruptly changes how they act toward us, it can be bewildering. Something that was positive and special is now hurtful. This can be extra hard for someone with a trauma background.
The lack of support from friends may leave the person cutoff more deeply isolated. Even when they mean well, friends rarely say the right things. I’ve heard it all, for example, “Good thing she’s not in your life anymore,” “There’s other fish in the sea” or “You just need to stop thinking about her.” I see these comments as misguided efforts at care.
I’ve learned the hard way not to talk to most of the people in my life about Emma. I have just a couple of trusted friends that I confide in now. For the most part, no one asks me about her anymore and I only bring the topic up with one or two friends. From the outside, almost no one sees how painful, devastating, and open this wound has remained.
If you’ve been cut off, it’s important to take good care of yourself. Focus on self-care. Confide in just one or two close friends. If you have a trauma history, it’s important to understand that culture won’t understand the intensity of your struggle and won’t offer much empathy to your path. Consider counseling. Exercise and eat as well as you can. Go easy on yourself when you slip up. Eat lots of dark chocolate.
Do whatever you can to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the body that relaxes and heals. Hot water and cold plunging at the spa, massage, acupuncture, getting out in nature or being around pets, restorative yoga, and yoga nidra are all great ways to support yourself. Read from authors who enlighten you and affirm your values. For me, Brown’s support of vulnerability and authenticity have been supportive and inspiring.
She advises that we all need a “bury a body” kind of friend; my friend Kerry is mine. After Emma threatened me, Kerry wrote, “You deserve beauty, fidelity, truth and someone who can stay in the room and show you regard.” That meant the world to me.
When we’re relaxed, we feel at peace and more comfortable with how our lives are going, the good and the bad. It’s the state when we have the most capacity to be neutral and loving. For me, yoga has helped me build capacity for difficult feelings and be in them without trying to change them or move through them. When I’m most relaxed, I feel deep affection for Emma as a friend and wish her no ill. I just feel sadness for my loss and empathy for her limited capacity. I can acknowledge my anger at her, but it’s only a piece of a much richer tapestry.
Trauma as a Catalyst for Personal Growth
My experience with Emma has been a catalyst that led me on a deep personal journey, painful as hell, but transforming. I’m a fundamentally different, more self-aware, more loving person than I was before. I don’t condone her behavior, but I am grateful for the opportunity it created for me to grow.
The Sanskrit word ahimsa means to do no harm. As hurt as I’ve been the past two years, I’ve tried to follow this path of non-harming in my thoughts and actions both to myself and toward her. For example, when others criticize me for not having let go, internally, I validate my own emotional experience. I’m kind to myself and avoid self-destructive dialogue. I try not to beat myself up for having unresolved feelings.
The next time a friend tells you they’ve cut someone off, think before you respond. Is cutoff really a behavior we want to support in our friends and culture? Instead, ask a lot of questions about why they’re doing this. Ask them if they’ve considered the other person’s wishes; empathy is underrated. Ask them if this is a path that will lead both parties to feel resolved and have healthy closure, or not.
Some time after her final email, a date took me to a restaurant in which Emma happened to be waitressing.
She grimaced when she saw me. Her expression seemed mixed with frustration and anger. She walked by our table about two dozen times without ever making eye contact. For nearly a year, I’d had only a couple of short email sentences saying she wanted no further contact with me. It was quite powerful to see emotion in her. Until that night, I didn’t realize how angry she is at me—but in person, it was obvious.
When we don’t tell people why we’re angry at them, we’re also robbing them of a chance to apologize and make amends. I would like nothing better than to understand how I’ve hurt or upset Emma and to apologize and make repairs.
As I left my date later that night and began reflecting, for the first time I had a visceral realization that perhaps I was further along in resolving my feelings about our relationship than Emma was. I felt empathy for her. I felt neutral and loving. I felt sad that we’re estranged but I care deeply about her and wish the best for her.
The friend who was told to break up via “JSC” told me another story. One of her friends chose to have sex with a lover after breaking up with him; she said even in the midst of ending the relationship, she wanted to “be generous in spirit.” While I don’t necessarily advocate taking things that far (in part because it can create confusion), I embrace the sentiment.
Relationships are beautiful and inspiring. We need more good endings and fewer walking wounded. Musician and teacher MC Yogi says, “Everyone you come across in this world is in struggle; so be kind. Kindness makes things easier.” Keep that in mind as you love, lose and break hearts so we can all go on with the positive, creative aspects of our lives without so much baggage.
Update: For my full response to the controversy this piece created, read Shining Light on Internet Rage and for additional context, On Opening Up Your Ribcage for Public Criticism.
Postscript: This clip from Girls of a fight between Jessa and Hannah over friendship cutoff may resonate with you.